COVID-19 patient require 99 percent pure oxygen, since the virus latches on to cells in the lungs, stealing oxygen. (Image: AP)
The demand for liquid medical oxygen in the country is around 8,500 metric tonnes per day (MTPD), while the total production is around 9,000 MTPD, according to the All India Industrial Gases Manufacturers’ Association. Despite producing enough oxygen to meet its demand, a major reason for the scarcity is the shortage of cryogenic tankers that can carry the life-saving gas.
Moneycontrol looks at the country’s current liquid medical oxygen demand-supply scenario, and the availability of tankers.
What are cryogenic containers?
Cryogenics is the production and behaviour of materials at very low temperatures. A cryogenic liquid is defined as a liquid with a normal boiling point below –90°C.
Cryogenic liquid containers are specially designed for the safe and economic transportation and storage of liquefied gases at cryogenic temperatures, lower than –90°C. These containers are highly insulated, in which liquid gases are stored at very low temperatures.
What are the reasons for the shortage of tankers?
Before the second wave of COVID-19, India had 1,200 cryogenic tankers. After the outbreak of the pandemic on a larger scale, in August 2020, India allowed the conversion of nitrogen and argon containers, too, to transport oxygen.
According to the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO), India has 1,600 cryogenic tankers now after the conversion of nitrogen and argon containers, while an industry source pegged the number at 2,400.
How many more do we need?
The country may require at least 300 more tankers, and it is planning to import more than 40. An Inox Air Products official told Moneycontrol that the cost of one tanker will be around Rs 35-Rs 40 lakh, excluding the chassis cost.
The rise in demand to around 8,500 MTPD can be compared to the oxygen consumption of around 4,300 MTPD, as on mid-April this year, and 3,100 MTPD in April last year and 850 MTPD during the pre-pandemic period. This is a major reason for the sudden spike in tanker demand.
The transportation bottleneck improved after the Indian Railways started running Oxygen Express services. While the speed limit for transporting oxygen through road is around 40 km per hour, it increases to 65 kmph on the rail route.
According to the Indian Railway Traffic Service Association, immense planning went into slashing the delivery time of critical liquid medical oxygen from 72 hours by road to 30 hours by Oxygen Express trains across the length and breadth of the country.
How much oxygen has the Railways delivered?
The Indian Railways has so far delivered 2,067 MT of liquid medical oxygen in 137 tankers to various states through 34 Oxygen Express trains. Out of this, 174 MT has been delivered to Maharashtra, 641 MT to Uttar Pradesh, 190 MT to Madhya Pradesh and 229MT to Haryana.
Delhi has received 707 MT of oxygen through the rail mode. “The situation in Delhi has improved. Trains have cut down on the transportation time. Oxygen from countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Singapore are now being diverted to Delhi. So the situation should be good. Two states that are managing the situation very well are Maharashtra and Kerala,” said Saket Tiku, president of the All India Industrial Gases Manufacturers Association.
How are nitrogen, argon tankers converted?
A source told Moneycontrol that for the conversion of nitrogen and argon tankers, only a simple process of degasification and some minor technical changes are required. A few liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers are also converted for transporting oxygen now. “Conversion of LNG tankers is a difficult and complex process as more focus should be given on safety, compared to argon and nitrogen,” said a government official.
India has so far imported oxygen in around 109 ISO tankers, and is planning to import around 50,000 MT of liquid medical oxygen. It will reach Delhi and Panagarh, West Bengal. It will reach JNPT Mumbai by sea route. Steel plants in the country already stock around 48,000 MT, based on the latest PESO data.
Rising demand a cause of concern
With India scaling a new high of 4,12,262 COVID-19 cases and 3,980 deaths on May 6, the need for oxygen seems to be on the rise. While states like Delhi, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are facing a severe crisis, even oxygen-surplus states like Kerala are seeing a rise in demand of 10 per cent per week, raising concerns among policymakers.
Till now, reports of scarcity of oxygen was coming from states like Delhi, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Now, even states like Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir are also facing an acute shortage.